Holidays in Philly

Eagles bounty, revenge arson and a jail escape: 7 headlines from Philly’s Thanksgiving Day past

The coronavirus has upended the holiday as we know it, but some things never change

Thanksgiving Day Parade
Billy Penn illustration; Newspaper.com archives
michaelawinberg-2020-2

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At times like these, what’s more relaxing than submerging yourself in Philly’s special brand of weirdness?

Let’s cheer up by remembering the city’s Thanksgivings past, the ones that ended weirdly — like with heartbreak, arson, theft or bounties.

Reading the stories and headlines below, we hope you feel a sense of renewed confidence that Philadelphia’s collective behavior will survive the pandemic.

1863: Like everything else, Philly does it first

The first Thanksgiving dinner ever was reportedly in some inferior part of the country (Plymouth, Massachusetts), but the holiday actually became legit in Philly.

In 1837, editor Sarah Josepha Hale took over the helm of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a women’s magazine based in Philadelphia. She believed a national day reserved for giving thanks would help unify the country amid intense pre-Civil War divisions.

Hale spent decades writing to governors across the country to make the case for a new national holiday. She petitioned President Abraham Lincoln for a few years, too.

In October 1863, Lincoln finally declared a national day of Thanksgiving that would happen every November. Thx Sarah.

Also: Kicking off in 1920, Philly’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is the oldest in the country.

1918: There’s a pandemic, but no one cares

This is not our first rodeo. In the early 20th century, the Spanish influenza overtook the nation and Philadelphia, killing 20,000 city residents.

How’d Thanksgiving go over that year? Unfortunately, the pandemic didn’t make that much difference.

The flu was seeming to subside by November 1918, and Philadephians were anxious to put it behind them. President Woodrow Wilson didn’t mention it in his Thanksgiving speech, and Philly partied with parades, sporting events and flag raisings, per the Inquirer.

It was a regrettable choice. The flu surged in December, likely fueled by holiday get-togethers.

“It’s pretty clear it wouldn’t have lasted as long as it did or been as deadly if people had been keeping to themselves,” Penn historian David Barnes told the Inquirer.

1939: PA changes the holiday date ’cause FDR asks

At the end of the 1930s, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was still brainstorming ideas to get the country’s economy back on its feet.

One solution he came up with? Move the date of Thanksgiving.

Apparently some retailers and small business owners complained to the Roosevelt administration that Thanksgiving happening on Nov. 30, 1939 was so late in the month that it left a holiday shopping season so short it would inhibit their sales. Roosevelt took their concerns seriously, asking the country to move Thanksgiving up a week to Nov. 23.

About half America’s then 48 states signed on — including Pennsylvania, but only for one year.

In 1940, Pa. Governor Arthur James switched it back to the last Thursday of the month, telling the Inquirer: “We still believe in adhering to some of the traditions of America.”

1966: Heartbroken woman tries to burn down lover’s apartment building

At the time, The Inquirer referred to Sandie Stevenson as “a woman disappointed in love.”

The 25-year-old Philadelphian was charged with arson on Thanksgiving Day in 1966. In the early morning hours of the holiday, she reportedly caught her love interest, 29-year-old William Richardson, in a North Philly tavern with another woman.

Stevenson ran back to Richardson’s apartment at 17th and Alleheny and started a fire to exact her revenge.

The blaze grew to four alarms, destroying 15 apartments on the second, third and fourth floors. Five people were carried out unconscious by firefighters, and 135 were displaced. Many of them spent the holiday in the neighborhood’s Thankful Baptist Church.

“I showed him,” Stevenson was heard yelling after she set the fire. “I showed him. Now we’ll see how he likes it.”

1981: Someone steals $50,000 in silver from Chestnut Hill church

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church had just wrapped up its 1981 Thanksgiving service in Chestnut Hill. Church staff locked up the building around 11 a.m.

When the church sexton returned to the sanctuary the next morning, he found six large and six small alms basins were missing, plus one large alms receiver and the communion silver.

The value of all the missing silver? $50,000, detectives told The Inquirer.

“Obviously, it’s a very sad thing,” then-Rev. James Moodey said. “There are break-ins all the time. … It seems to happen to everybody eventually.”

1989: Eagles coach accused of putting bounty on Cowboys player

It’s famously remembered as the Bounty Bowl.

In 1989, the Eagles shut out the Cowboys 27-0 during their Thanksgiving Day game — but the event ended in controversy, because it seems even then the Birds couldn’t deliver us a win without pain.

Shortly after the game, Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson accused Eagles coach Buddy Ryan of placing a $200 bounty on kicker Luis Zendejas — a former Eagles player — and a $500 bounty on quarterback Troy Aikman, The Inquirer reported. (In football, a bounty is when players are offered bonuses for trying to injure specific players on the opposing team.)

As evidence, Johnson showed reporters a tape of Eagles player Jessie Small colliding with Zendejas.

Philly coach Ryan denied the allegations — but the game called for a rematch two weeks later. CBS called it the Bounty Bowl II, and the Birds won that game too, 20-10.

2009: A man behind bars just walks out of jail

27-year-old Oscar Alvarado, who had been accused of murder, simply walked out of the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility on State Road on Thanksgiving afternoon in 2009.

He was the first inmate ever to escape from the city jail.

To do it, Alvarado had to get past the visitor’s area, a dozen correctional workers, and two locked doors. It was seemingly so easy for him that he managed to change into regular clothes as he passed the jail employees.

The Inquirer reported that Alvarado escaped between 3 and 6 p.m. on the holiday.

In just a few weeks, law enforcement managed to find Alvarado in a hotel in Bucks County with his sister and two friends. All were arrested and charged with criminal conspiracy.

Want some more? Explore other Holidays in Philly stories.

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Holidays, History